The House Special Cold Noodles at Mala Sichuan dawned on my palate like a particularly memorable sunrise.
First came the coolness and stretch of long, irregularly cut egg noodles that had never seen the inside of a factory. Next, the spreading flush of red-tinted heat from oil flavored with hot dried chile pods and a mellowing tone of garlic, all chased by the tingle of Sichuan peppercorns.
Those hard brown starburst peppers launched a blooming numbness across the tongue. A snap of julienned scallion chimed in at the end, the entire sensation lingering and changing until it died away gently, as if day had broken.
That was my first taste of this exciting newcomer to Bellaire Boulevard’s Chinatown, and I haven’t gotten over it. I seldom moon over restaurants, even ones I love, because it’s always on to the next one. Mala Sichuan, however, has really gotten under my skin. Since my first meal there back in the fall, I’ve suffered fierce pangs of longing for those fabulous cold noodles and for a clutch of other dishes that really turned my head.
One of them is the delightfully named Funky Stick Chicken, a cold appetizer in which soft, cool chicken shreds meet an expansively bright-tasting sesame-and-red-chile dressing. It’s such a marvel I can’t help fantasizing about always having a container of it waiting in my refrigerator, ready to restore me from life’s slings and arrows.
Another object of longing for me is Mala Sichuan’s Chengdu-style Pot Roasted Prawns, big dewy curls of shrimp that hold their own in a boisterous context of red chile and Sichuan peppercorns, garlicky bits of minced pork and ginger, plus a leavening of crisp vegetables (asparagus, bamboo shoot, scallion) that makes the dish surprisingly light on its feet.
Chengdu-style preparations earn only two red-chile pods on Mala Sichuan’s three-pod scale of hotness, but they are eventful stuff, distinguished by the yin-and-yang dance of red chile and dusky, aromatic Sichuan peppercorn, the phenomenon for which the restaurant is named. “Mala” implies the creative tension between spicy chile-pod heat and that numbing peppercorn tingle, and many of Mala Sichuan’s best dishes take full advantage of the dialectic, which is the defining trait of food from this southwestern Chinese province.
One of my favorites is the two-alarm “Three Pepper Beaten Duck,” in which hacked morsels of the restaurant’s potently tea-smoked duck are stir-fried so that they bristle with dried red chile pods, slivers of serrano pepper and numbing pinpoints of Sichuan peppercorn. Cooling lengths of celery change up the eating experience. Watch for bones — here and in the Rabbit in Red Oil cold appetizer, which, unlike the Beaten Duck (and despite the lure of toasty peanuts), does not completely repay the trouble of eating it.
You’ll need some milder dishes to offset all the mala fun, and I found the Sautéed Baby Bokchoy with garlic exceptionally good: just crisp enough, just garlicked enough and so beautifully prepped that the cores of the tiny brassica heads made a slender, nested pattern on the plate.
The Dan Dan Noodles are gentle enough, too, despite their one-pod rating, with a brothy sauce taming the flavor of the minced-pork topping, which reminds me of a Sichuan version of pasta Bolognese. Ants on a Tree, a similar dish made with glass noodles, is less spicy and less interesting.
I had high hopes for the half tea-smoked duck as an interlude, but no: mine was too salty to really enjoy, despite its nicely assertive smoke flavor; and the advertised crispy skin turned out to be flabby and dispiriting. Ordinarily I admire Mala Sichuan’s menu for its helpful (and relatively unusual in Chinatown) listing of ingredients and cooking methods. But the beguiling description of that duck skin led to one of my two disappointments here.
The other was from the Live Tilapia section of the menu, a house specialty pulled straight from the fish tanks that decorated a back wall. Tilapia doesn’t interest me, really; it seems like such a bland fish that I regard it more as a placeholder in a dish, a source of “fish texture.”
Even that virtue falls by the wayside when the fish is overcooked, as it was in a Chengdu-style Pot Roasted Tilapia that paled in comparison to the magnificent shrimp version of the dish. My helpful young waiter suggested his favorite, the Sauerkraut Fish Pot, and I’m keeping an open mind about trying it — or the super-hot Mala Pot Roasted Tilapia that he said is their most popular preparation — but I don’t feel optimistic.
About nearly everything else here, however, I feel optimistic and then some. The misses have been few, and the hits are riveting: flat shards of Cumin Beef doing the mala dance in tandem with that northern cumin-seed twinge; translucent little flaps of Mala Beef Tendon in a red-tinged bath, with a lovely fresh crunch to them that offsets their richness. Think you don’t like tendon? Try this version.
Even an improbable appetizer of a soft, fatty bacon strip wrapped around delicate cucumber pinwheels delights here, thanks to a galvanizing baste of garlicky red-chile sauce. (It’s called Garlic Bacon on the Appetizer Cold Dish section of the menu, which, along with the following Local Snacks selection of noodles, tofu and dumplings, is a prime grazing ground.)
Indeed, there are few restaurants in which I would rather experiment than this sunny-yellow room with its simple red hangings and strings of faux red chiles. The cooking, for the most part, is nuanced and assured. The very names of many dishes beg that they be ordered: Top Notch Pot of the Outlaws, say, or Devourable Beef Pot, or the fortuitous-sounding Prosper at 5 a.m.
The surroundings are almost prim, with white tablecloths and high-backed blond wood chairs setting the tone. The service is polite and helpful, the prices really modest considering the quality, and — as if that weren’t enough — you’ll get a 5 percent discount if you pay with cash.
While I love Houston’s Bellaire Boulevard Chinatown for its wide array of choices, I have often lamented that there are so few restaurants where the quality stays relatively consistent across the full range of the menu. In Mala Sichuan, I think I’ve found one.
It’s not as good as it could be yet — I’d love to be able to give it three stars, signifying one of the best restaurants in the city — but the potential is there. There are smart young owners who are second-generation Sichuan restaurant people, and they’ve hired cooks from Sichuan province who know what they’re doing. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Mala Sichuan Bistro
9348 Bellaire Blvd.
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.